"In the Eye of the Light": Ancient Druids and International Influences

Article excerpt

On September 22, 1792, a group of Welshman met on Primrose Hill in London to perform the Gorsedd of the Bards, which was, they claimed, an authentic Druidic ritual. Their leader, Edward Williams (known as Iolo Morganwg), the self-proclaimed last living Druid and heir of an unbroken tradition, directed the group in forming a stone circle (made of pebbles from Iolo's pockets), building an altar, sheathing a sword, as Piggott describes the ritual in The Druids, and reciting poems in both Welsh and English.

Both their activities and location indicate the importance they placed on making a public statement: they were the new keepers of the Druid tradition. On a world stage, they invoked an historical frame of reference that gave legitimacy to their claims. In Romantic Medievalism, Elizabeth Fay wrote that the Romantic historical imagination "authorizes the presentation of the past for a particular purpose" and the activities on Primrose Hill literally incarnate this tendency (12). The performance both connected the Welsh to their historical roots and launched an ethical code addressing contemporary political and social unrest. By uniting the ancient past with the living present, the Welsh claimed a political authority that was beyond the average citizen.

By the mid-eighteenth century, both Methodism and Anglicanism had challenged the Welsh national identity, which was customarily denigrated. Welsh antiquarians responded in a movement to recover, translate, and publish ancient Welsh manuscripts, preserve vanishing Welsh traditions, and counter the derisive British view of them. The Welshmen on Primrose hill invoked the Druids to help reestablish the legitimacy of their cultural heritage.

Both English and Welsh 18th century scholars such Henry Rowlandson in Mona Antiqua Resturata and William Stuckely attempted to glorify the Druidic heritage and defeat popular conceptions of savagery and paganism. The association between Druids and human sacrifice, however, persisted in literary works such as Frank Sayers' Starno (1790), which ends with a Druidical sacrifice, and in writers such Wordsworth and Blake. As A. L. Owen notes, "the Druid who had once presided over the holocaust had cast a long shadow" (199). With this brutal reputation, the Welsh revival of Druid rites in London in 1790, was a brave and determined effort to recast and thus reclaim their history.

The performance on Primrose Hill marks an important moment in the Welsh antiquarian movement, when the past was rescued as inert object of study and became a particularized and contemporary context. While history defined and shaped their actions, these cultural patriots created a context in which to imagine themselves as part of a larger tradition. The effort was ultimately successful; by 1819 the Gorsedd was incorporated into the re-emergent national eisteddfod, where it remains to this day.

However successful, this new Druidism, re-imagined and represented to the public by Edward Williams, its chief architect, as genuinely ancient was nothing of the sort. Instead, the Gorsedd was the product of a fertile imagination richly supplemented by information about past practices and dependant on influences extending from Painite politics to Eastern religion. Ultimately, therefore, the new Welsh Druids embodied a complex set of cosmopolitan influences.

The neo-Druids of the London Welsh represent a skillful re-inscription of the past. This new version of ancient Welsh history claimed three branches of the Order of the Bards of the Isle of Britain: the Bards, the Druids, and the Ovates. The Bards ruled, the Druids were devoted to religion, and the Ovates cultivated literary and scientific learning. Linking the Druids to the Bards as branches of the same order helped overcome the image of Druids practicing human sacrifice and contextualized them positively in a larger organization. Welsh writers like Edward Williams contributed to their rehabilitation by using the terms Druids and Bards interchangeably, even as substitutions. …